Sean Baker's unexpectedly good American indie movie, "Starlet" (2012) is described as “the unlikely friendship between 21-year-old Jane and 85-year-old Sadie.” But, this is not a tender relationship story. The reasons for that are best discovered gradually, as Baker clearly intends for us to. "Starlet" takes place in a part of Southern California known as the San Fernando Valley, more commonly "The Valley." Set in an sun-dried land, the film takes the old drama of two mismatched people looking for connection and makes it feel just new enough to keep us moving within the journey.
Starlet is the name of Jane's pet Chihuahua. In the first scene, we see Jane (Dree Hemingway) and her roommate Melissa (Stella Maeve), smoking weed. Melissa's boyfriend Mikey (James Ransone) seems to be obsessed with X-box games. Their occupation seems to be getting stoned and getting into fights. Jane is not happy about her bedroom and so seeks out yard sales for sprucing up her room. In one of the yard sales, she meets Sadie (Besedka Johnson), a cantankerous 85 year old woman. Jane picks up big thermos from her yard sale to use as a vase.
At home, Jane discovers several thousand dollars (nearly $10,000) hidden in the bottom. of thermos. She goes for a small shopping spree -- binges on a high-priced manicure for herself and a sparkly halter for her dog. But, soon, may be by an unarticulated sense of unease guilt, she returns to Sadie's house to give back the thermos. The hostile Sadie just says "No refunds" and shuts the door. She has no memory of that money. Still undecided, whether to return the money or not, Jane decides the best way to assuage her guilt is to force herself into Sadie’s life. At first, Sadie is suspicious of Jane's motives, but she is persistent enough in her attempts to assist the old woman that an unlikely friendship emerges.
If the plot sounds like a fairy-tale, it's not. The hints to their back stories blends very well and makes Jane and Sadie grow ever more interesting as characters. Neither of them is fully veracious, which causes the occasional tiff. There is an absurdity to this relationship but director Baker smartly reins in. He has derived unforced performances from the two lead characters. Dree Hemingway lures us into the naive, girlish daze through which Jane sees the world. We see hardcore rap music, playing loud in her car. But, when we get to know about the nature of her job, it seems that she has numbed her emotions to the degree that she is oblivious to the lyrics of rap.
Bedeska Johnson, making her feature film debut at the age of 86, brings the right amount of aggression and obstinacy. Even if Baker's script didn't feel as natural as it does, we would still feel OK spending time with the two portraying their protagonists. Stella Maeve is also very good as Jane’s monumentally stupid, mean-spirited roommate. Baker's direction, at times, makes us feel like a eavesdropper. The conversations and the depiction of girls lives looks genuine. He doesn’t give much details about either woman, in terms of their histories, but as they inch closer to each other, the continuities between them gain resonance, power. The cinematography (by Radium Cheung) is often shot in shallow focus and tight frames, desaturating the image to look rosy and soft (doesn’t glamorize and blocks out everything Jane doesn’t want to see).
"Starlet" is a rough ride, but this is the kind of film not often seen, one that is honest about the dishonesty in relationships. It instructs us that broken souls can help each other to become whole.
Starlet -- IMDb